The Current State of Grasping the Current Condition

During a conversation the other day with my friend and colleague Ron Pereira, he mentioned an interesting point. This was in regards to the current state of the continuous improvement community’s understanding of the term current condition. We hear this expression at various stages of the problem-solving process. The first few steps of the Plan phase of the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle involve understanding the current situation. To be thorough, this often requires multiple visits to the process to gather facts and data. By confirming or updating our understanding of what’s happening, we can frame the issue properly, set a reasonable target, and begin investigating causes. This improves our chances of success.

What Is the Actual Condition Right Now?

The kata approach draws a distinction between the current condition and what’s referred to as the “actual condition.” How is the actual condition different from the current condition? This is a source of confusion for some. One of the questions a coach asks the learner during a kata coaching cycle is What is the actual condition right now? There is a section on their kata storyboard Current Situation. In some cases, it’s labeled Actual Condition. Why this distinction? How is a learner to answer this question?

The original intent was to separate the original current condition, or initial fact-finding as documented on the kata storyboard, from the latest condition based on seeing the results of the latest experiment. It seems like “What’s the condition right now?” or “What’s the new current condition?” or even “What’s the updated current condition?” would have saved some confusion between actual and current.

Grasping the Situation

In practice, people continue to use the terms current condition, actual condition, current situation, and actual situation, and current interchangeably. This is because in English we have many ways of saying the same thing. The Japanese expression genjo ha-aku is translated as “grasping the situation.” The term genjo means present condition, the status quo, the existing state of things. The gen for “real or actual” is the same one as we find in genchi genbutsu as well as gemba. The word ha-aku means to grasp, in the mental sense of grasping an idea or concept, i.e. to understand.

Tracey and Ernie Richardson do a fantastic job of explaining what this means in practice. The book The Toyota Engagement Equation relates their experience on how different levels of “GTS” drive continuous improvement and develop people at Toyota. I highly recommend it. The effort we put into grasping the situation pays off in more effective problem-solving or improvement activities. So how did we get from grasping the situation to a menu of actual situation, current condition, actual condition, current state, and the newest member to this club, the actual condition right now?

Situation, Condition, or State?

When gathering facts about the existing reality, we have several options on what to call that thing we try to grasp. We use the terms situation, condition, or state interchangeably. Perhaps there is no big difference in day-to-day use. But studying the etymology of each may help us to choose.

We find the roots of the word situation in Latin situs which means place or location. A situation is a place at a point in time. When we say, “What’s the situation?” we aren’t talking about the future or the past, but what it is at this moment. When something is situated, it’s located in a specific place. When we find ourselves in the middle of a situation, we are placed within a set of circumstances, facts, and ongoing actions.

The term condition has interesting origins. Rather than referring to a place, the word typically refers to a “particular mode of being of a person or thing.” But there is a surprising social aspect to this. Condition once referred to the consensus or agreed rank or status of a person. It comes from the Latin condicere “to speak with, talk together, agree upon.” Given that the purpose of genjo ha-aku is to understand what’s really happening, rather than one biased by social consensus, I’m less of a fan of current condition.

The word state also has Latin roots in status, “a station, position, place, way of standing, posture, order of things.” This is also a perfectly good term, if we take it to mean “where things stand.” This combines a sense of place and time, as in the here and now. However, in English we can’t just say, “What’s the state?” without ambiguity. We either have to say “What’s the state of…” something specific, or “What’s the current state?” of a subject under discussion. In this regard, I prefer situation to state.

Currents Must Flow, Actuals Must Be Active

A way to remember what we mean by grasping the current condition or situation is that it’s ongoing, flowing, or up-to-date. A current flows. If something is current, it’s hasn’t expired. That information or status is still good. Data in a current condition section of an A3 or kata storyboard is not a static snapshot of past performance, but a reflection of what’s going on at the moment. Many times, what’s recorded in the current condition section is not current, and would be better labeled “initial condition” or “situation analysis as of [dd/mm/yy].”

We use the word actual to mean real or existing as opposed to ideal or potential. The Latin roots actualis gives us the meanings of “active, pertaining to action,” so there is again a real sense of doing or motion in the actual condition or actual situation. It’s a toss-up between these two terms, but I prefer to use one and not both.

Grasp the Situation Before the Condition

It seems “situation” is the simplest and most direct way of saying what we intend to grasp when initiating problem-solving activity. A situation includes all people, processes, and things within it. A condition is more specific to an individual or group of things, and may be appropriate when the status of a focus process, post-experiment. When trying to understand reality, we should start with a wider lens before zooming in. Grasp the situation before the condition.

Can we do away with the two words at the end of the question, What is the actual condition right now? If we understand condition to be process-based and narrower than situation which encompasses multiple processes, systems and their impact on customers, it begins to make sense. The kata question is interested in the actual or active performance features of a focus process, based on the latest experiment.

Hopefully this sheds light on the question rather than adds confusion. If the latter, feel free to forget the above and just remember “go see, gather the facts and understand what’s happening.”

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